Two Greek words, σχῆμα and μορφή, generally understood as figure and form respectively, are thought to be synonyms. Some translations in fact use compound forms of these words (transfigure, transform) interchangeably. As will be shown below, however, an understanding of their underlying difference in meaning can shed a new light on a number of scripture verses.
The distinction between σχῆμα and μορφή is best seen in Philippians 2:6–8. Here Paul speaks of Christ Jesus as being in the form of God ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ; and who, by becoming incarnate, assumed the form of a slave μορφὴν δούλου and was thus found by others to be in figure σχήματι like a man. Let us now examine these two words.
Σχῆμα [s-híma]. From this word we get English scheme and schematic. In the above passage, σχῆμα is variously translated figure (DBT), fashion (KJV), appearance (NIV), or in other ways. The word signifies all the outwardly perceptible shape of one’s existence. Indeed, Christ had the shape, bearing, language, action, relations, habits, needs, and behavior in general of an ordinary human being, so that in the entire mode of his outward appearance and conduct he made himself known, and was recognized by others, as a man. The inclusion of likeness of men ὁμοιόματι ἀνθρώπων [omiómati anθrópon] in verse 7 exhausts Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s true humanity.
Μορφή [morfí]. From this word we get English morph, which is also found in compounds such as morphology and metamorphosis. In the above passage, μορφή is generally translated form, though some translations render it as nature (GNT), very nature (NIV), humble position (NLT v. 6), or in other ways.
Σχῆμα here concerns the outward appearance and expression of the incarnate Christ and is therefore simpler to comprehend. Μορφή, on the other hand, concerns the pre-incarnate Christ’s divine attributes and existence as God. This makes one wonder how Paul really uses μορφή. For while in ordinary speech the two terms may overlap, μορφή is here used in a narrow sense. For a possible answer, we must probe the term’s application in Greek philosophical thought. As Lightfoot remarks, Paul’s use of μορφή “[is] in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy.”
Lightfoot’s commentary now ushers into our discussion Aristotle’s view of μορφή. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle discusses the relationship between matter and form. Existence, he says, is understandable only in terms of what a particular thing does or is meant to do: (a) timbers and stone are potential to a house; (b) that which shelters men and their possessions functions as a house. When (a) and (b) are combined, one speaks of what a house actually is—its function—not its shape. Aristotle concludes that while matter is equated with potentiality, form is equated with function. Korsgaard concurs. “Function,” she says, is “the best candidate for form,” and it “does not mean purpose but rather a way of functioning — how a thing does what it does.” In the same vein of thought, Ainsworth comments, “A statue may be human-shaped, but it is not a human, because it cannot perform the functions characteristic of humans.”
Paul was born and educated in the “university city” of Tarsus, where society was heavily influenced by Hellenistic language and culture and Stoic philosophy. His superb command of the Greek language indicates that he studied Greek at the university level. Such factors point to the likelihood that the Apostle not only was acquainted with Aristotle’s philosophy, but that he also applied μορφή in the Aristotelian sense of function.
Viewing now μορφή in this light, we will at once see Paul drawing in the above passage an extreme contrast between the pre-incarnate Christ as being equal in function with God, and the incarnate Christ as being equal in function with a slave of God—a servant who voluntarily surrendered to the Father the independent exercise of his divine attributes.
Below are excerpts from the KJV that show how they are affected when the strikethrough word in italics (the word used in various translations) is replaced by the preferred equivalent shown in bold print.
- Jesus was transfigured transformed (Mat. 17:2, Mark 9:2). Comment: An outward expression of Jesus’ indwelling divine form was temporarily made manifest to Peter, James, and John.
- Satan transforms transfigures himself (2 Cor. 11:14). Comment: Satan cannot change his function, only his appearance.
- Satan’s pseudo-apostles and deacons transform transfigure themselves (2 Cor. 11:13, 15). Comment: Like Satan, his evil servant spirits cannot change what they do, only their appearance.
- Do not be conformed configured to this world but be transformed [sic] by the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2). Comment: Christian principles should not be compromised in this world; rather, change in behavior should be maintained through the ongoing renewal of the mind by pursuing what pleases God. Both commands here are durative in aspect.
- Christ will change transfigure our vile body that it may be fashioned conformed to his glorious body (Phil. 3:21); We are being changed transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18); We will be changed conformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29). Comment: Our earthly bodies are destined to change both shape and function by being conformed to the image of Christ.
Today, after 2,000 years, both σχῆμα and μορφή and their compound forms as used in the NT are read, spelled, understood, pronounced, and applied the same way in Modern Greek, though only educated speakers of Greek would to any extent associate these terms with Aristotelian concepts.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
 Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 261.
 Joseph B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 8th ed. (London: MacMillan and Co., 1888), 132–33.
 Barbara Jancar, The Philosophy of Aristotle (NY: Monarch Press, 1966), 127.
 Christine M. Kosgaard, “Aristotle’s Function Argument,” p. 39, https://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/AristotleFunction.pdf (accessed Jan. 4, 2021).
 Christine M. Korsgaard, “Oxford Scholarship Online,”
 Thomas Ainsworth, “Form vs. Matter,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
 Quency E. Wallace, “The Early Life and Background of Paul the Apostle,” https://www.biblicaltheology.com/Research/WallaceQ01.html.
 This article is only an attempt to form a basis for the distinction between these two terms, not to explain in any detail Aristotle’s philosophy regarding matter and form.
 George L. Lawlor, When God Became Man (Chicago: Moody Press, 1978), 74. Also, Vincent R. Marvin, Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. III (McClean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, 1990), 431.